SOUTH Africa’s trade deficit narrowed to R2.7bn in December from R7.9bn in November, for its trade with non-Southern African Customs Union (non-Sacu) trading partners‚ South African Revenue Service (SARS) customs and excise data showed on Thursday.

Renaissance Capital SA economist Elna Moolman said this was the first time since December 2008 that the trade account had recorded a deficit in December.

"Usually there is a seasonal improvement that yields a surplus during the holiday period," she said.

The trade account has been in deficit since the beginning of 2012‚ showing the extent to which weakness in global demand and work stoppages in the third quarter have affected local exports.

The cumulative deficit for 2012 was R117.675bn, compared with a cumulative deficit of R16.885bn in 2011.

Both imports and exports fell in December, with exports falling by R6.5bn or 9.8% to R59.8bn while imports dropped R11.7bn or 15.8% to R62.5bn.

Ms Moolman expected some improvement in the trade and current account balances this year, owing to an expected recovery in mining production and exports, while the weaker rand and weaker domestic growth would likely help contain import growth.

Nedbank economists said in a research note that South Africa’s trade performance would remain weak in coming months on the back of unfavourable global conditions and domestic supply disruptions.

A breakdown of the figures showed that the exports of prepared foodstuffs‚ beverages and tobacco fell by R774m or 32%; those for mineral products decreased by R544m or 3%; products of the chemicals or allied industries fell by R536m or 14%; base metals and articles thereof decreased by R2bn or 23%; machinery and electrical appliances exports decreased by R944m or 15%; and vehicles‚ aircraft and vessels exports fell by R1.1bn or 14%.

In imports‚ vegetable products decreased by R603m or 32%; prepared foodstuffs‚ beverages and tobacco decreased by R 581m or 25%; original equipment components decreased by R1.8bn or 42%; and miscellaneous manufactured articles decreased by R520m or 35%.